Monday, October 01, 2007

The Ethics of Work

Not so long ago I was unemployed. For several months I found myself looking at company after company, doing research, sending out resumés, putting in applications. In each case I tried to envision what life would be like in the new job at the new company. How well would I fit them? How well would they fit me? Could we make a go of it?

There were several things to take into account. What kind of company was it? What kind of product did they make, or service did they provide? How did they treat their current employees? What was their philosophy of work?

I found these questions weighing on my mind a lot. When I was in college pursuing a degree in Physics, people wondered what sort of work I would seek after graduation. I really had no idea. I decided in the end that my goal would be to get a Ph.D. by age 27 and begin publishing books about science targeted towards non-scientific readers. I would manage to stay out of the obvious employment options for people with Physics degrees - nuclear power plants and the weapons industry. No death rays for me, baby.

Things didn't work out that way.

I dropped out of graduate school after one semester and found myself in need of work. Some kindly professors steered me towards a local solar cell manufacturer. That was interesting, but didn't pay much - at all. Still, it was fun to be a part of an emerging technology (this was 1990-1991) and know that the things we were making could very well be helping to make a difference in the world.

The solar cell manufacturer wasn't my first job. Technically, my first job was dogsitting for a neighborhood family while they were off on a Summer vacation. The dog was the best part of that job. A few months later they moved out of the neighborhood, and the dog was hit by a car and killed.

My next job was as a stockboy at a women's clothing store. That only lasted a few weeks. I did meet some interesting "older women" there - they were all, like, in their twenties.

In college I had a summer job working at the TV faceplate factory where my father worked. That was an interesting job. One day one of the other summer employees and I were heading off on a break when we had to wait for a train of faceplates to drive by. We watched them go by, first hundreds, then thousands of them.

"If all goes well," I said, "every one of these will become a television."

We goggled at the thought. We were surrounded by hundreds of thousands of future televisions. Tomorrow there would be hundreds of thousands more. How many brain cells were we responsible for destroying?

Solar cells were another thing, though. Our company specialized in solar cells for water pumps that were going to third-world countries. In the middle of the desert, somewhere, the light of the sun would help to bring water to a thirsty land, courtesy of our solar cells.

The next company I worked for was a CD, record, and tape manufacturer. It had once been a locally-owned company, and the son of the man who had founded it was still the CEO, and his son was being groomed to take his place. But it was now a division of that most evil of all businesses - the music industry. Actually, through a recent merger the parent company was now a media conglomerate, combining publishing, movies, and music into one corporate entity. Still, very, very evil.

But the product was good. CDs! Music! We brought music to the people!

And then..DVDs.

Even better. Much better. While CDs generally carried either ephemeral music from the passing parade of soon-to-be-forgotten top-40 stars or moldy oldies from well-established stars, DVDs carried - everything. Movies. TV programs. Biographies. Documentaries. Concerts. Everything. And it was good.

Eventually there was another merger. The multimedia conglomerate was "purchased" by an internet service provider in what later came to be seen as a "Joe Millionaire" marriage: while it appeared that this was a case of successful new tech acquiring established old tech, in time it became obvious that this was a case of a company that was wealthy on paper buying a company that had actual wealth tied up in its physical assets.

Things went sour. The tech company was quickly relegated to the Junior partner in the deal, but the old, established media conglomerate needed to find a way to stop the hemorrhaging that was resulting from wounds sustained in the merger. So it began selling off bits of itself. Including us.

Our company was purchased by a foreign CD manufacturer that was looking to get into the DVD business. We were no longer the manufacturing arm of a media conglomerate. Now we were just another business unit of a media manufacturer.

But still our product was sound. We were still making DVDs. As was I, until I lost my job at the end of February.

People sometimes asked me what the hell I was doing working for a DVD manufacturer when I had a degree in Physics. "Having the time of my life," I would say. "Making money. Not making anything that hurts people. Not making bigger and better bombs."

Some of the companies I looked at while I was looking for work made junk food. Some made plastics. Several made Department of Defense-related products. Helmets. Jet engine parts. Optical systems. Artillery. Bombs.

So what are the ethical considerations here? Is it OK to help a company that makes bombs or frozen ice-cream novelties operate at maximum efficiency, despite its current best efforts to the contrary?

I don't know. I started working for the DVD manufacturer again at the beginning of August, in a more literal DVD manufacturing role. It was a bit of a shock to realize that my former and current employer was the least ethically objectionable company I could locate in the area. But should such things even be taken into account?

Some people say no, emphatically no. Others say absolutely yes. I have discovered that some ethical considerations go out the window in the face of real-world pressures. If it comes down to it, under what circumstances would you work for a company that does something that you find objectionable? What would influence your decision? Money? If so, how much money?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post, DB, and lots of good points. I like when you write these memoir pieces. Some thoughts: The ethics of work boil down to five things, IMHO:

The product or service delivered, and the company's relationship to its customers, employees, shareholders and community (this includes both the business community and the local community).

Granted, some of these have competing interests, but good executives find ways to reconcile them without compromising one or the other.